Belleville Defies Odds with Depleted Blueline

Despite missing key pieces to the blueline, Belleville managed to grab four of six points this week.

The Belleville Senators proved many critics, myself included, wrong this weekend. When you’re missing your two best defenders and the remainder of your blueline consists of players who aren’t even signed to contracts that would allow them to play at the NHL level, you’re almost guaranteed to lose hockey games.

In that scenario, you really only have two choices. First, score a bunch of goals and hope your opponent can’t keep up. Second, have your goaltender stand on their head. After a loss to Manitoba on Wednesday and the recall of Christian Jaros and Max Lajoie, Belleville managed to accomplish both scenarios this past weekend.

Wednesday, November 20 - Manitoba 2, Belleville 1

Here are the highlights.

  • Marcus Hogberg stopped 25 of 27 (0.925 SV%) shots and was perfect on the penalty kill.
  • Jordan Szwarz was the lone goal scorer, with Rudolfs Balcers and Jaros playing a part in the goal.
  • Belleville outshot Manitoba 39 to 27./

Friday, November 22 - Belleville 6, Binghamton 3

Here are the highlights.

  • Hogberg got the nod again, stopping 24 of 27 shots (0.888 SV%).
  • Josh Norris, Vitaly Abramov and Drake Batherson combined for four goals and five assists.
  • Szwarz led by example, contributing a goal and an assist of his own.
  • Belleville was perfect in two powerplay attempts./

Saturday, November 23 - Belleville 2, Lehigh Valley 1

Here are the highlights.

  • Filip Gustavsson was a brick wall, making 37 saves (0.974 SV%).
  • Alex Formenton and Balcers each had a goal and an assist as they flanked Szwarz on Belleville’s top line.
  • Lehigh Valley outshot Belleville Belleville 38 to 18, further emphasizing Gustavsson’s importance in this match./

A Rag Tag Group of Nobodies

It’s not possible that I’m the only one that had almost no hope for Belleville pulling off two wins this weekend. While Jaros returned to the BSens for Saturday’s game, the remainder of Belleville’s blueline lacked pretty much everything you’d look for in a professional hockey lineup. Belleville had no choice but to deploy the likes of Tom Parisi, Chris Martenet, Trent Bourque and Jonathan Aspirot this weekend. Those four blueliners combine for 138 AHL games — with 123 of those belonging to Tom Parisi, who played a full season with Laval last year.

Needless to say, it was going to take quite the effort to pull of some wins and the BSens were up to the task. On Saturday, Belleville threw every bit of offence they could towards their opponent and on Sunday, Gustavsson was a literal wall between the pipes. Neither win had a ton to do with the defenders on the roster, but it’s exciting to see that the team was able to come together despite the shortage of talent and experience on the back end. They got away with having this group over the weekend, and I think it’s fair to say that this positive of a result isn’t something that can be expected moving forward.

With Jaros back from Ottawa and Lajoie likely heading down shortly, help is on the way. But I would still love to see the Sens add another strong defender to this group. I think they’re a top four defender away from respectability on the back end (Cody Goloubef anyone?) — but still two top-four defenders away from a truly solid group.

Who’s Next?

As expected, Ottawa has dipped into the Belleville pool many times already this season. Currently the likes of Logan Brown, JC Beaudin, Filip Chlapik, Max Veronneau, Nick Paul and Lajoie are spending time with the big club. It’s pretty clear, at this point, that both Brown and Paul will be the last to be sent back to Belleville of that group. It’s likely we’ll see some combination of Beaudin, Chlapik and Veronneau sent back, with Artem Anisimov and Scott Sabourin getting closer to full health. This begs the question, who should be next?

The answer isn’t exactly straightforward. You have to consider the position of the opening in Ottawa. But there’s a pretty clear front runner for each forward position — with the obvious defenders Lajoie and Jaros at the top of the list on the back end.

If Ottawa is missing a centre, Norris is your man. The 20-year-old centre has been a solid addition to Belleville’s top six, notching 13 points in his last 14 games to put him near the top of AHL rookie scorers. Playing primarily with Batherson and Abramov, Norris has started to show why Pierre Dorion was excited to get him in the Erik Karlsson trade. He’s a strong skater and plays well at both ends of the ice. He also has quite the shot.

If we’re talking about a left-winger, then it has to be Abramov. After already receiving one call up this season, Abramov has proved he’s ready for more. In this weekend’s shootout with Binghamton, Abramov put up a pair of goals and a pair of assists to bring his season total to 7-7-14 in 16 games. His speed and skill would be a welcome addition to Ottawa’s second powerplay unit.

If you thought I was going to go with the obvious route for a right-winger worthy of a call you would be correct. I’m pretty convinced the only thing Batherson needs to do to get his name called this season is wait for a top 6 right-wing spot to open up in Ottawa. If I’m D.J. Smith, I’m rightfully calling up players who have both earned a spot, but also fit the role. When you look at last week’s recall of Veronneau — another right winger — it makes more sense simply because Veronneau likely projects to be a bottom-six winger at the NHL level. Having him come up and play ten or less minutes a night makes more sense for a coach who wants to balance prospect development and winning hockey games — which I hope is Smith’s strategy. As much as nobody is waiting for a particular person to get injured, because that’s a pretty morbid way to look at things, we’ll probably have to see one of Anthony Duclair or Connor Brown miss time before Batherson gets another shot.

Or I’m reading far too deep into things — which I’ve been known to do.

The Week Ahead

The BSens host Laval tonight before heading on a weekend road trip that has them stopping for a rematch in Binghamton and a match in chocolate town (Hershey). In a week of winnable games, all eyes will be on Belleville to see if they can make a noticeable jump in the standings.

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